In search of the manufacturer of the Royal Hawaiian ukulele
by John King
The maker of the Royal Hawaiian ‘ukulele remains a mystery. It is likely, but not proven, that they were produced by Kumalae for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
—Chuck Fayne, Finding Paradise
he imprimatur of royalty has always been coveted by musical instrument makers and other artisans, if only to further their reputations (and sales) among the trend-setting, well-bred, well-heeled hangers-on within the imperial circle. A case in point is Antonio Stradivari who was commissioned by the de’ Medici family, two Spanish kings and other, lesser nobles. The orders poured in, so much so Stradivari nixed outright gifting an entire quintet—as in two fiddles, a viola, a tenore, and a ’cello—to Philip V of Spain when that monarch visited Cremona in 1706. It would have set a bad precedent; Stradivari’s son Paolo disposed of that particular set of instruments after his father’s death in 1737.
And what did it matter if their majesties and their court were just dilettantes, mere dabblers? Did Gottfried Silbermann really concern himself with whether Frederick the Great (as renowned for his musical soirees at San-Souci as for his generaling on the Austrian frontier) could coax a sforzando, pianissimo, or legato out of the old organ-maker’s new-fangled pianoforte? It was enough that the instrument was there and waiting for Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach to tickle the ivories, or on the rare occasion when CPE’s old man, Johann Sebastian showed up in Berlin to improvise canons and fugues for Frederick and his guests. The upshot was, due to the royal association, Silbermann & Co. sold a lot of pianos.
t’s a fact that the uke—going by the name ukulele—made its earliest recorded appearance in Hawaii during a San-Souci-esque interlude with royalty aboard a British yacht in Honolulu Harbor. A threesome of young women kicked off the second half of the evening’s entertainment with an “ukulele trio.” A heretofore unpublished photograph of these three graces (two-out-of-three, at least—one of them is unidentified but may be the enigmatic Miss Widemann, daughter of a prominent Honoluluan) surfaced at the Hawaii State Archives during my research in 2001. Arrayed on the lawn at Ainahau, the Waikiki estate of Archibald Cleghorn and his wife, Princess Likelike, are Cleghorn’s daughters, Annie (holding an ukulele), and her half-sister, Kaiulani, or more properly, Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani, the niece of King Kalakaua.
David Kalakaua has long been credited with the revival of Hawaiian culture after decades of stultifying missionary influence. He set the fashion for all to follow, introducing and popularizing the hula kui, a muted, genteel dance imbued with Victorian restraint and Hawaiian grace to the accompaniment of guitars, taropatches and ukuleles. The king was also a man, and a man with king-sized appetites—Robert Louis Stevenson watched him down five bottles of champagne one afternoon—after which the mo‘i was “quite presentable, although perceptibly more dignified, at the end.”
HRHM’s tastes were the usual ones attributable to both prince and pauper, e.g.: wine, women and song. In 1922, João Fernandes reminisced about the parties he attended at Kalakaua’s bungalow:
I go out with August Dias [the guitar & ukulele maker] and João Luiz Correa in the old days. We play for everybody; we have fine times. We would go to the king’s bungalow. The king wouldn’t stay in the palace—just when there was business. Lots of people came. Plenty kanakas. Much music, much hula, much kaukau, much drink. All time plenty drink. And King Kalakaua, he pay for all!
Stevenson’s step-daughter, Isobel Strong, wrote of the king’s love of music as well as his reputation for revelry:
[Kalakaua] would occasionally pick up a ukulele or a guitar and sing his favorite Hawaiian song, Sweet Lei-lei-hua, and once he electrified us by bursting into
Hoky Poky winky wum
How do you like your taters done?
Boiled or with their jackets on?
Sang the King of the Sandwich Islands.
Through all our gaiety there was always a deep respect for Kalakaua. None of us called him anything but “Your Majesty,” and never did I see anyone treat him with familiarity.
Indeed, the only impertinence I ever heard toward the King came from his own musicians, not the Royal Hawaiian band but that little group that played for him at our suppers and private parties. There were five of them, the best singers and performers on the ukulele and guitar in the whole islands.
We were on the beach at Waikiki, a party of us sitting on a row of chairs facing the sea. On a platform built over the water the musicians were playing lively hulas while we listened, admired the moonlit scene and drank champagne in goblets.
“It is too beautiful,” I called out to the King. “I never saw such a glorious night. Please, Your Majesty, ask the boys to play something appropriate to the occasion.”
Kalakaua held up his glass to be filled, and waving it at the musicians, called out an order in Hawaiian. They stopped for a moment, consulted together, and then broke into the song,
The Old Man’s Drunk Again
Kalakaua was known to haunt the guitar shop of Dias—it was at 11 King Street, ‘ewa of Iolani Palace—and because Dias had no English and the king had no Portuguese, Dias’ teenaged daughter, Christina, would facilitate conversations between the two. So, it’s not surprising that the only surviving ukuleles with a truly royal Hawaiian provenance were both made by the artful Madeiran (Ka‘iulani’s Dias uke is in a private collection in Honolulu; another Dias, given as a gift by Kalakaua, has wound up in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum). Late in her long life, Christina Dias Gilliland remarked that Kalakaua even allowed her father to brand his instruments with the royal seal. Sadly, no such instruments are known to have survived.
In 1916, another of Dias’ countrymen, Manuel Nunes, advertised the patronage of the “Royal Hawaiian Family” fully twenty-five years after Kalakaua’s death and twenty-three years after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani! That such a royal endorsement could still be seen as beneficial nearly a quarter-century after the abolition of the monarchy was a testament to the continued high regard accorded the ali‘i in the Islands. Nunes wasn’t alone: in 1916 & 1917 the short-lived Hawaiian Ukulele Co. advertised themselves—albeit generically—as “makers of the Celebrated Royal Ukuleles.” These latter testimonials are second-hand at best; marketing, pure and simple.
evertheless, the ukulele has a proud tradition of association with royalty not only in Hawaii but also in its former home, Madeira (in its former guise, the machete), and in England. Octavianno João Nunes, the Funchalese violeiro, reportedly presented an exquisite machete to the Empress of Brazil when she visited Madeira in the 19th century. Far more famously, Edward, Prince of Wales—no stranger to Hawaii, having visited Waikiki on a 210-day ‘round-the-world goodwill trip in 1920—was known to have played the ukulele when he became enamored with American jazz in the mid-1920s. He even lent his title (or was it misappropriated?) to a high-end Harmony uke presented him by Johnny Marvin in 1928:
In February 1928, Marvin signed for a ten-week engagement at the Kit Kat Club in London. Around the same time he signed an agreement with the Harmony Company of Chicago, which would market a ukulele and ukulele banjo bearing Marvin’s name. On May 5, 1928, Marvin sailed for England on the Leviathan. As a publicity stunt the Harmony Company made a special gold-engraved ukulele to be presented to the Prince of Wales, with his coat-of-arms and seal embossed on it. Marvin also took along 10,000 miniature ukuleles made by Harmony for throwaways during his London stay. Johnny Marvin opened his London engagement at the Kit Kat Club on May 14; on June 16, Billboard credited [him] with ‘having brought the Prince of Wales twice in one evening to the Kit Kat Club to hear his warbling and uke playing.’
Funny Regal didn’t think of it first—a Regal Prince of Wales uke would have had such cache.
It’s uncertain if the prince’s short stay at Waikiki in 1920 had any part in his awakening interest in the ukulele but he fancied the music. “The Prince, who was weary of life on board ship, took rooms for himself and his Staff at the Moana for a few days,” according to one writer, “and in his typically democratic way, he ate in the big dining room, went swimming and surfing, and mingled with the other hotel guests.” Dancing to the music of the Moana Hotel Orchestra in the Banyan Court, the prince approached the band leader to request the name of the previous number and asked that the band play it again later in the evening. The tune was “Hula Blues” and the maestro Johnny noble, its composer. Edward, who also requested the band play “Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight,” enjoyed the evening so much he returned the next night for a reprise. Noble’s biographer remarked that “no other occasion in his musical life would ever equal those two nights” in Johnny’s memory.
Sophie Tucker, another American veteran of the London Kit-Kat Club remembered performing for Edward at a private party in 1925. “During the evening I was sent for to sing for the prince,” she wrote. “I sang all the songs [he] called for. He loved playing the ukulele. He got me to teach him my song, ‘Ukulele Lady.’” The prince was a quick study. A few months later, Edward was jamming with a tribe of bushmen at a rail siding in the South African veld:
H.R.H. was having dinner before going up into town to a reception and ball, when a Hottentot and a couple of Kaffirs, with their wives and piccaninnies, squatted in the dust at the line side, and throughout dinner serenaded him with jazz music (bush pattern), ancient native melodies, and anything else they had inherited from their forefathers or picked up in the local dorps. They did all this on primitive native instruments, plus an American mouth-organ; and the result was remarkably attractive. Between courses H.R.H. hummed the airs, and the minute dinner was over produced his ukelele, opened the window, and joined in the melodies. This, I think, is a priceless picture of the Prince off duty.
At the same time the Prince of Wales was kanikapila-ing in the African bush, ground was being broken back at Waikiki for a new hostelry next to the Moana Hotel. It was to be a Mediterranean Revival Spanish castle called the Royal Hawaiian.
he Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened February 1, 1927, “reviving memories” of the old hotel of the same name. The old Royal was located, appropriately enough, on Hotel St. near Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu, while the Waikiki site “was an ancient gathering place of Hawaiian royalty, a legendary watering place fed by several springs.” The opening-day festivities, presided over by Princess Kawananakoa, included a concert by the Royal Hawaiian Band, a ten-dollar-a-plate dinner and ball, and an historic pageant (“colorful and semi-barbaric”) reenacting the arrival of Kamehameha the Great on Oahu. The staff of 300 included “60 people in the kitchen, 95 waiters, 40 room boys, 20 bellboys, 10 elevator operators, five telephone operators, two doormen, two pages and eight Chinese lobby boys, dressed in “Cathayan costumes,” who mostly chop-chopped for missee’s trunks.” The hotel was equipped with “38,624 dishes, 28,284 glasses, 20,292 knives, forks and spoons, 22,573 towels, 30,988 sheets, blankets and bedspreads, 25 cages of canary birds” and one ukulele shop, the Paul Summers Studios.
Located in the RHH Arcade, Summers’ shop had tapa-covered walls decorated with palm fronds and pictures of famous Hawaiian landmarks. Curtained tables festooned with paper leis and raffia-hula-skirt bunting were crowded with rows of beautiful koawood ukuleles and guitars. A small electric phonograph sat ready to play recordings of local musicians, such as Summers’ own rendition of Johnny Noble’s “Hula Blues.”
Paul Summers was a retailer first and foremost, a teacher (he offered a course of six ukulele lessons for $10 dollars) and performer (he was the original guitarist for Harry Owens’ Royal Hawaiians) second, but not a uke maker. Nevertheless, instruments with the Summers label turn up regularly, including “The Waikiki” brand and “Moana” (Summers had a studio at the Moana, too— both hotels were owned by the Territorial Hotel Company). One of Summers’ known suppliers was Sam Chang who, according to his daughter Clarice Chang, would make a batch of ukuleles in the basement of his house then pedal a bike down to Waikiki to deliver them. There were clearly other makers in Hawaii supplying Summers with ukes—too many survive to have been the work of one man. But I have never seen a Summers’ ukulele with the Royal Hawaiian brand; or a Royal Hawaiian ukulele with a connection to the hotel, besides the name “Royal Hawaiian” which has been used for products from soup to nuts. So, if Summers didn’t make them, and the RHH didn’t sell them, who did?
raw up a list of known ukulele makers active in Honolulu in the late 1920s and 30s and it’s surprisingly short. Times were tough: the real estate bust in Florida, and the stock market crash and ensuing depression cut heavily into the tourism business in Hawaii. The ukulele, which had been extremely popular for a decade, was eclipsed by the new medium of radio and improved electronic recording. Competition from the Mainland was intense, all but crowding out Island makers from the continental market. Sales plummeted. In 1933, Sam Kamaka estimated he was selling fifteen ukuleles a month, down from three to four hundred a month in better times. To make ends meet Kamaka ran a taxi stand from his 1814 S. King St. factory, dealt in flowers and leis, and started a bird-of-paradise nursery in Halekou.
Other luthiers to survive the Crash and make it into the 30s intact (besides the two Sams—Chang & Kamaka) were the Aloha Ukulele Manufacturing Company, Jonah Kumalae, G.P. Mossman, and C.Q. Yee Hop & Company. Aloha was incorporated in late 1917 and dissolved in 1935; most of the shareholders were of Chinese descent but for one notable exception: Ernest Kaai, who owned five percent of the company. Aloha was run by Chu Gem—a businessman rather than a craftsman; the creative genius was Tai Chong Goo who worked under the pseudonym Akai. Tai’s ukuleles are among the most beautiful and well crafted instruments of the period. Often branded with the Honolulu Advertising Club trademark (TABU) and a cursive “Akai,” the Aloha/Akai ukulele might have a highly flamed koa body, a fanciful, asymmetrical headstock and top-notch inlay work or be a plain, well-proportioned beauty with lovely round curves. Strictly a wholesale business in their early years, Aloha eventually opened a retail shop on the factory premises. When the company folded, Tai continued making ukuleles on his own under the name Akai Ukulele & Curio Company; he died in Honolulu in 1968 at the age of 88.
Jonah Kumalae was probably the most successful (in terms of volume) of the early Hawaiian makers. Strictly a businessman, Kumalae tendered the winning bid for the curio concession at the Hawaii Building during the entire run of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. His ukulele exhibit there won a gold medal and Kumalae wasted no time in seizing the day by securing important mainland distributors like Sherman, Clay & Co. who had stores tumbling down the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. Back home, he advertised his gold medal ukuleles in the city directory for several years, an expensive proposition no doubt. A suspicious fire destroyed his Liliha St. factory in 1922; Kumalae claimed to have lost an
astonishing 4,000 ukuleles in the conflagration. He blamed the extent of the damage on the municipal government for failing to mount an adequate response (fires had twice before destroyed large tracts of Honolulu; it was a legitimate issue). He moved his operation to the family home at the corner of Isenberg and South King Street, were four employees worked for him, according to his son, Jonah, Jr. Kumalae went to Chicago in 1926 to try to sell an invention for a banjo uke accessory but he was apparently unsuccessful. It’s unclear if Kumalae’s ukulele business ever recovered its pre-fire stature; minimal entries for the company appeared regularly in the city directory thereafter until his death in 1940.
George Paele Mossman got into the ukulele business with Clarence Kinney in 1914; by 1918 they had split up. Mossman continued making ukuleles and in 1927 claimed to have perfected a uke which could be heard from half a mile away and yet still retain its clarity and tonal sweetness. He called it the Bell Tone and promptly trademarked the name with the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Mossman ran large ads for Bell Tone ukes in the Honolulu Advertiser (they could be purchased at leading music stores and several hotels including the Royal Hawaiian and Moana); he projected annual sales of 10,000 instruments for 1928, an incredibly optimistic forecast. That same year Mossman founded Lalani Hawaiian Village at Waikiki and devoted himself to furthering deeper understanding of native Hawaiian culture including the hula and Hawaiian language; by 1933 he suspended the manufacture of ukuleles. Mossman died in 1955 at 63 years of age after completing drawings for a larger and more cosmopolitan Lalani Village on Kapiolani Blvd.
1926 and ’27 were years of frenetic pipedreams for ukulele makers in Hawaii. Sales for the large Mainland manufacturers peaked in 1926 then dropped sharply in ’27—news that was slow in coming to the Islands. Everyone was thinking big. In addition to the activities of Kumalae and Mossman, Sam Kamaka applied for a trademark and a design patent for his pineapple ukulele. That same year the Los Angeles Times reported on the formation of a cartel of Hawaiian ukulele makers (for which I have found no hard evidence) that may have been related to the San Francisco musical instrument distributor Jules M. Sahlein. Sahlein trademarked several brand names in 1926, including Y’KeKe (Waikiki) and Hula Lu, names that show up occasionally on Mossman ukuleles and, more frequently, on instruments of the Hawaiian Mahogany Company.
he Hawaiian Mahogany Co. (Hawaiian mahogany is a generic name for Acacia Koa, koa wood) was incorporated in late 1921 for the purpose of cutting, milling, buying and selling, and dealing in koa, ohia, hardwood and other lumber and to manufacture and deal in products of the same: furniture, flooring, curios and ukuleles. The principal owner was C.Q. Yee Hop & Co., Ltd. which owned cattle and large tracts of land on the Big Island of Hawaii. In their efforts to expand their beef operation, CQYH&Co established a sawmill in Kona to facilitate clearing the hardwood forests, thereby transforming the land into open range for grazing. Presto, the Hawaiian Mahogany Company is born; and nearly as quickly it dies. CQYH&Co. subsumed operation of the HMCo in the late 1920s while continuing the business of making curios and ukuleles under the name C.Q. Yee Hop & Company. CQYH&Co manufactured and sold ukuleles through 1947 after which telephone directory listings for the company’s ukulele business cease.
Excerpt from the Hawaiian Mahogany Co. articles of incorporation
Echo was the Hawaiian Mahogany Company’s most recognizable ukulele brand, an instrument with a forked, flat brass twanger glued to the underside of the soundboard near the bridge. It didn’t really create an echo. HMCo Echo ukes frequently show up with the Y’KeKe decal of Jules M. Sahlein affixed to the peghead, an indication the instruments were exported and sold on the Mainland. As early as 1929, HMCo (then doing business as C.Q. Yee Hop & Co.) began marketing a new brand of ukuleles: The Royal Hawaiian. Were they ever sold in the lobby of the Pink Palace? Who knows. CQYH&Co. is still around today. Still in the food business. They don’t make and sell ukuleles, but who knows what the future might bring. C.Q. Yee Hop & Co. just might be keeping their options open.
Thanks to all who contributed something to this essay, including Stephen Becker, Jim Tranquada, Tom Walsh, Michael Goo, Donna Ewald Huggins, Del Medina, Chuck Fayne, Arch Larizza, Ken Bailey and the Hekili Collection, Hawaii State Archives, Hamilton Library, Hawaii State Library and the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum.
Text and images © 2008 by John King. All rights reserved.